Category Archives: AfPak

The straight man at the bazaar.

Support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to dwindle. Others have argued that Karzai is a manic depressant, corrupt, and unwilling to side with the US because they, unlike the Taliban, will eventually leave Afghanistan. Fouad Ajami, formerly at Johns Hopkins SAIS and now at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, adds that Karzai wants the US to stay while simultaneously deriding its presence:

American policy has emboldened Karzai. Great wealth came to his impoverished country, and the opportunities for banditry have fed into a culture of dependence and corruption. Truth be known, neither the Karzai regime, nor the Taliban warlords, want the Americans out of Afghanistan. The treasure we pour into that country sustains the ruling cabal and the Taliban alike. We are the straight man at the bazaar, the stranger fleeced by the locals. The protection money we pay for our convoys wends its way into the pockets of the Taliban. Long ago, Afghan society had lost the ability to provide for its own people: There is no economic life to speak of, the pillars are the drug trade and the foreign handouts. It is in the interest of the Afghans that their country be seen as a dangerous land. Were we to head for the exits, the Afghans are certain to block our way with reminders that Al Qaeda is there, or could make a quick return. This is an odd kind of nationalism, one that wants to keep a foreign military presence—and deride it at the same time.

Our predicament in Afghanistan is self-inflicted. We drove up the strategic rent of Afghan real estate. President George W. Bush flattered and indulged Karzai aplenty; the Obama administration’s surge in Afghanistan added to the Afghan president’s insolence.  Afghanistan became the good war of necessity, a rebuke to that bad war of choice in Iraq.  Iraq had been the “stupid” war, so Afghanistan must be, by default, the “smart” war. We could never discipline Karzai, nor ask of him the minimum of public decorum. He could belittle our sacrifices and get away with it. “They do give us bags of money—yes, yes, it is done. We are grateful to the Iranians for this,” Karzai said last year in a typically audacious way. The big money came from the Western democracies; Iran was next door and could buy influence with a small amount of baksheesh. After all, the Iranians have bazaars of their own and they can price things at or near what they are worth. Bags of cash, the reports from Afghanistan confirm, are hauled out of Kabul to Dubai, and there are eight flights a day to the casino and tax haven that Dubai has become.


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An Attainable Standard?

Perhaps. Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O’Hanlon make an interesting argument that the US should implement a Plan Afghanistan that is modeled not on our operations in Iraq, but on Plan Colombia, which was implemented in 1999 by the Colombian and US governments to combat Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups, especially the FARC.

Many analysts have noted that the surge strategy in Afghanistan needs to be fundamentally different from that in Iraq. It is not an accident but rather a product of geography and the demography that Iraq has had strong central governments over the course of thousands of years, whereas Afghanistan has never had one. An Iraqi government can aspire to control all or nearly all of its territory. Indeed, any notion of success in Iraq virtually requires it. An Afghan government, on the other hand, cannot aspire to such an ambitious goal and, critically, success in Afghanistan does not require it.

Strange though it may sound, success in Afghanistan would look a lot more like the success that has been achieved in Colombia over the last 10 years, rather than the success that we are hoping for in Iraq. This is a point that was made two-and-a-half years ago by Scott Wilson, a Washington Post reporter who had spent four years in Colombia as a correspondent and a year in Iraq. Writing in April 2009, Wilson said that Obama “may want to look south rather than east in charting a new course” for Afghanistan. Though they hide in triple-canopy jungles rather than forbidding mountains, the insurgents in Colombia, like those in Afghanistan, will always enjoy the benefit of sanctuaries inside the country. And, until Pakistan withdraws its support for the Taliban, Pakistan will cause the same problems for the Afghan government that Venezuela does for Colombia.

There is a lot to be said here. The Plan Colombia had many successes. In the 1990s, violent deaths in Colombia rose to five times per capita what they are in Afghanistan today, and the FARC controlled as much as 30% of Colombia. The DIA reported then that Colombia could be lost in as few as five years.

In response to that growing danger, in 2000, the Colombian government put forward an ambitious Plan Colombia, which was warmly embraced by the Bill Clinton administration and later the George W. Bush administration. According to a recent Congressional Research Service study, the country has “made significant progress in reestablishing government control over much of its territory, combating drug trafficking and terrorist activities, and reducing poverty,” through a combination of brave actions by the Colombian military, some $7 billion in U.S. assistance, a relatively small number of U.S. military advisors and, particularly, the strong leadership of President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2010. A number of senior FARC leaders have been killed, some through targeted air strikes, and thousands of FARC fighters have demobilized, partly as a result of a government amnesty program. According to Colombian government statistics and other sources, the number of FARC fighters has declined by half since 2001 (though they still number almost 8,000) and they are having difficulty recruiting new members. The International Crisis Group estimates the average age of FARC recruits today at less than 12 years old.The country remains plagued by violence, to be sure, but is no longer in danger of state collapse and no longer has the omnipresent feel of a war zone.

Uri Friedman offers this assessment:

Plan Colombia, which is now overseen by President Juan Manuel Santos, can count a number of successes. James Story, the director of the Narcotic Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, told CNN last week that since Plan Colombia’s inception, coca cultivation in Colombia has dropped 40 percent, cocaine production 60 percent, homicides 50 percent, and terrorism and kidnappings more than 90 percent. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, FARC forces have declined by approximately half since 2001 to just under 8,000, and the percentage of Colombians living in poverty dropped from 54 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2009.

Wolfowitz and O’Hanlon (and Friedman) are aware of Plan Colombia’s weaknesses, among them the arming of right-wing paramilitary groups and the subsequent extrajudicial killings, and the movement of the drug trade farther north to Mexico. These are no small matters, but, they conclude, the pros outweigh the cons. This might be the best option for us to implement in Afghanistan, flawed though it is. Does this constitute defeat? Wolfowitz and O’Hanlon again:

Some might object that the articulation of such an outcome as our goal in Afghanistan would be an acknowledgement of failure. True, it is a less desirable end state than either the Bush or Obama administrations initially envisioned for Afghanistan or than the United Nations envisioned in the heady days back in Bonn. But such an outcome would in fact be substantially better than current conventional expectations after 10 years of a war that many Americans and Afghans think we are actually losing.

It is at least a realistic plan, and not some pie-in-the-sky ideal of remaking Afghanistan in our likeness. It would also be a welcome departure from our current strategy, which this morning Tom Ricks aptly described: “The strategy is to fight, talk, and build. But we’re withdrawing the fighters, the Taliban won’t talk, and the builders are corrupt.” (I actually doubt Ricks would support this plan, but the quote seemed to fit. It’s from his blogpost discussing things generals know but aren’t allowed to say.)

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Assad for President… of Pakistan

It may be difficult to find the formula necessary to provide the Syrian people the political freedoms they crave, while also giving social minorities the reassurance they need to avoid ethnic and sectarian civil war, but a quick departure of the Assads is a necessary component of any solution. Surely Bashar would refuse the ignominy of a forced retreat to a gilded prison in a foreign country; but Pakistan could offer him the perfect face-saving solution while saving itself in the bargain: Pakistan should offer to make Bashar its president.

Oh, the unimaginative might be inclined to dismiss this idea out of hand, but its logic is compelling. With a single stroke, it would solve many of Syria’s problems, while simultaneously providing a key to the solution of South Asia’s most pressing and intractable difficulties.

This idea was put forth by Robert Grenier, a retired, 27 year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service and the former director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004-2006. This will be dismissed not just by the unimaginative, but also by the realistic. Perhaps it’s really just a thought-provoking essay. Regardless, I wonder if ideas like this were/are shared among the intelligence services. I doubt it, but would love to know the reactions if this had been floated in an internal memo.

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The Benefits of Taliban Governance

Thomas Barfield suggest structural changes the US and Afghan governments can implement to avoid both the dissolution of the Afghan state and a civil war within in. Among these suggestions are the recognition of political parties – to weaken ethnic and regional networks who “owe their strength not to popular enthusiasm but to a simple lack of alternatives” – and the devolution of power to local authorities, akin to the democratic federal system in the US, as a structure to provide stability.

Barfield, a Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and one of the smartest observers writing about Afghanistan, also shares these thoughts on incorporating the Taliban into local governments:

Opening up provincial and district governorships to competition would provide the safest form of power sharing with the Taliban. Whereas non-Pashtun Afghans oppose granting the Taliban a role in the national government, they have few objections to former (or even current) Taliban members serving in districts or provinces where they have local support. Allowing the Taliban to serve in a democratic government would likely lead to beneficial fissures within the Taliban, since those who come to hold positions in local government would have less reason to remain loyal to the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. Participating in a coalition government would put much different pressures on Taliban members from those they faced when they essentially ruled as dictators in the 1990s. The stated goal of the Taliban’s central command — seizing power nationwide — would immediately clash with the interests of these local commanders turned politicians. Similarly, the need for these governors to deliver services and patronage to their own districts would increase their incentives to cooperate with those who could provide such aid: namely, the government in Kabul and its international allies.

The article, “Afghanistan’s Ethnic Puzzle,” is also recommended for those, well, trying to understand Afghanistan’s ethnic puzzle. That understanding requires the acknowledgment of the ever-changing links and loyalties that unite and fracture Afghanistan’s regional, ethnic, and religious groups, and the avoidance of simple deductions and conclusions.

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Please Meet Landon

Please meet Landon. His dad, Marine LCPL Carpenter, made the ultimate sacrifice while serving with the 3/8 in Afghanistan earlier this year. A month before his son was born.

Posted at RedditPics, and many other blogs. I don’t know where it originates from. The Marine Corps Times offers a few more details.

No comment offered.



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Dick Cheney vs. Joshua Rovner and Austin Long

Dick Cheney:

In my view, the most important lesson to be learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s is what happened after the Soviets left. The United States turned its attentions elsewhere, and Afghanistan descended into civil war. The resultant instability and eventual takeover of the country by the Taliban meant that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists were able to find a safe haven there. Throughout the late 1990s, thousands of terrorists were trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and it became the base for the attacks of 9/11. When I hear policy-makers talk about walking away from Afghanistan, I want to remind them of what the consequences can be.

(From In My Time, p. 347.)

Not so, say Joshua Rovner and Austin Long in a CATO Institute Foreign Policy Briefing.

They point out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that state-building and counterterrorism are inseparable. Obama’s national security strategy states that, “In Afghanistan, we must deny al Qaeda a safe haven, deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the government, and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

First of all, that argument is not even practical. Rovner and Long explain:

Unfortunately, the necessary ingredients for successful state building—time, money, and existing institutions—are in desperately short supply in Afghanistan. Public and congressional opposition to the war is rising in the United States, and the Obama administration has already announced it will scale back the U.S. commitment beginning next year. In addition, Afghanistan’s political and economic institutions are extremely weak. The fledgling government has had enormous difficulty expanding control outside of Kabul. The judiciary, which is notoriously inefficient, competes in many places with a shadow Taliban court system. Economic institutions remain fragile at best; witness the recent run on the Kabul Bank. For all of these reasons, the U.S. desire to build a strong and legitimate government in Afghanistan is not practical.

“The good news,” they explain, “is that it is not necessary.”

A state-building failure would not mean victory for al Qaeda or the Taliban. Even if the United States substantially reduces its ground forces in Afghanistan and the Kabul government remains weak and ineffectual, al Qaeda would not be able to recreate anything like the safe haven it once enjoyed. The original circumstances that made sanctuary possible no longer exist today.

Why? First of all, if the Taliban were to regain control over parts of Afghanistan, there are significant costs to pay (i.e. airstrikes), which they know well. There would be little hesitation from either American political party about using air assets for such operations. It is much more likely that al Qaeda will have to remain in hiding for the foreseeable future. This was proven in the Korengal Valley in 2010, when al Qaeda attempted to reestablish itself in an area that coalition forces had left, only to be greeted by U.S. aircraft informed by Afghan sources on the ground.

Second, the Afghan Taliban have some support from the Pakistani ISI. Al Qaeda does as well, but they will most likely elect to just stay in their current sanctuary. Pakistani militants, an enemy of the Pakistani government, do not have such support from the ISI. The Afghan Taliban would not risk their ISI support by extending a welcome to Pakistani militants if the Taliban were to return to Afghanistan.

Thus, if the Taliban return to Afghanistan, they have no incentive to welcome neither al Qaeda nor Pakistani militants. If they welcome the former, the U.S. will certainly retaliate. If they welcome the latter, no one will stop Pakistan from attacking.

As Rovner and Long conclude:

The upshot of this analysis is that state building is not necessary to succeed in Afghanistan. The decline of the central state will not lead to a domino effect in the region. Al Qaeda will not be able to recreate its old safe haven there even if the government collapses. Pakistani militants will not find reliable sanctuary either, regardless of what happens in Kabul. Rather than investing heavily in state building, the United States can achieve its interests by streamlining its counterterrorism campaign. It does not need to become mired in the bloody business of Afghanistan’s political evolution.


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The Firefight in Kabul

When the BBC reported yesterday that “Afghan and international security forces have been battling a multi-pronged attack by insurgents targeting the US embassy, Nato headquarters and police buildings in Kabul,” I became worried that the Taliban and opposition forces were becoming stronger and emboldened. The attacked seemed well planned and organized: the attackers arrived in burkas so they wouldn’t be searched, and were armed with “rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), heavy machine guns and hand grenades, as well as biscuits and energy drinks,” as if expecting a long firefight.

But how bad was it? According to the New York Times:

The American ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, played down the attack as “harassment” that had made for a hard day at the embassy but was not a game-changer.
“This really is not a very big deal,” Mr. Crocker said. “If that’s the best they can do, you know, I think it’s actually a statement of their weakness.”

The initial reports state that the attackers are believed to be part of the Haqqani Network, a Pakistani group affiliated with the Taliban. If this is so, it is further evidence that Pakistan is far more important strategically than Afghanistan, or at least that the stability of Afghanistan is dependent on the stability of Pakistan. “Mr. Crocker indicated that such attacks were likely to continue because the insurgency had strong support in Pakistan.”

NATO posted two videos of the firefight on Youtube.

The second video is here.


Simon Gass, the senior civilian NATO representative in AF, also offered, in the same NYT article linked, what must be the worst metaphor I’ve read in a while:

“Afghanistan is a little like a boxer,” said Simon Gass, the senior civilian NATO representative in Afghanistan. “It is going to take some blows along the way, but it will keep coming forward, and it will prevail over its enemy.”

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Rory Stewart on Ending the War in Afghanistan

Or at least our participation in it. I linked this TED talk in the previous post, but this video deserves its own post. The whole video is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

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A ‘Good Enough’ Afghan Army

The Pentagon announced yesterday that it will drastically cut U.S. funds for training the Afghan Army, which remains the central pillar of America’s strategy in AF – as they build up, we scale down. The LA Times reports, “The cutbacks, along with already planned reductions, would shrink annual U.S. expenditures on Afghan security forces from nearly $13 billion to well below $6 billion in 2014, the officials said. The Pentagon has spent more than $39 billion to build up the fledgling forces over the last six years.” So the “drastically” lower expenditures will be only slightly less than the average of the last six years.

Yet how do we define “good enough?”

Despite intensive training efforts, the Afghan army — and, to a greater extent, the national police force — remains beset by drug use, illiteracy and high desertion rates. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have repeatedly infiltrated both forces, and “turncoat” attacks by Afghans in uniform have killed and injured dozens of Western troops over the last two years.

All knew that the funding couldn’t continue at current levels given the worsening fiscal problems in the US and the EU and the lack of visible and significant improvements in AF. This shouldn’t be too surprising. But GEN Allen and his team will have to implement an exit strategy with a faster withdrawal timeline than they requested and with less money to train the ANA and ANP, and there is little they can do about it. Obama seems “more comfortable with a military strategy that relies heavily on drone aircraft strikes in neighboring Pakistan and nightly raids by special operations forces against Afghan militants, while trimming the American military presence and budget to politically acceptable levels.”

Supporters of the current strategy and opponents of Obama will certainly argue that this puts the entire strategy and mission in jeopardy. But it’s been in jeopardy from the beginning. TOTPS will take seriously their counter-arguments as long as they don’t declare 2011/2 as the “decisive” year. (Start at 8:43.)

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